Candy From Strangers

The following is a guest post from blogger Deborah Adams. Faithful Fight Back Friday readers may recognize her as Deb from Notes From Jesus Creek. Here, she’s writing about food advertising and its effects on children. Thanks, Deb!

A few days ago I was standing in line at the post office, just behind a young mother and her daughter. The little girl looked to be about 2 years old – she was still speaking that language that only a mom can understand. She was a chubby little blonde child, wearing a tee shirt that promoted Coca Cola. As I watched her, she was happily smearing a chocolate bar all over her face.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning, by the way. So, I’m not sure whether this little girl was eating her breakfast or a mid-morning snack. As she alternately licked her candy bar and babbled at her mother, I realized that this was a child who already knows how to plan ahead to her next meal; the one word coming out of her chocolate-coated mouth that I could understand clearly was ‘McDonald’s.’

The food industry spends billions of dollars each year on child seduction, with carefully-conceived advertising directed specifically at children. Just like drug dealers, fast food and snack food purveyors understand the importance of hooking them young and building life-long, loyal customers for their products. Eric Schlosser writes in his eye-opening book Fast Food Nation “…market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.”

We parents are at a distinct disadvantage here because we are every bit as susceptible to advertising as our babies are, and we are often completely oblivious to the powerful effect it has on us. With that little girl at the post office still on my mind, I started paying closer attention to the way the food industry surrounds us with messages, both subliminal and blatant. In just a few hours my mind was reeling!

On my short drive home, I passed a dozen fast-food outlets with their big signs and banners suggesting I take advantage of incredible deals on inedible meals. Throughout the day, magazines and television pushed sugary, fat-laden ‘treats’ at me; a couple of websites offered me cute little cartoon representatives encouraging me to indulge in nutrition-free, artificially colored and flavored substances guaranteed to induce a state of bliss. If I’d gone into a school, I could have gotten my fix from vending machines in the hallway.

If we replace ‘junk food’ with ‘meth,’ the problem is suddenly much more obvious. But kids living on colas and sugar are in just as much danger. They are subject to health problems like high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other crippling ailments at ages as young as that little girl in the post office. Just because Twinkies are legal doesn’t mean they’re safe.

But how is a conscientious parent supposed to go up against the giants of advertising? I’m not sure we can win this battle, but I think it has to start with truth. That’s something you can’t buy in a package, but it’s the only way to expose the predators who target our children.

First of all, we have to initiate and maintain a lifestyle that teaches by example. We parents must be vigilant in watching for the marketing techniques that reel us in. We have to be aware of our own purchasing behavior, and we have to explain it to our kids. Make them aware of what advertising is all about, and help them understand that the commercials are meant to sell, sell, sell, with no concern for the consumer’s well-being.

We have to turn off the television, where the youngest children are first taught to desire double-cheeseburgers and super-fries. At the very least, we can turn off the commercial channels and stick to public television programming.

We can take our little ones shopping with us and spend time explaining to them exactly why the fruit and produce section is more important than the impulse buys at checkout.

Just as in our efforts to keep our kids safe from drugs and alcohol, we have to teach them early how to make wise decisions about the importance of proper nutrition and their own health. By the time we send them off to day care, the ad pushers have already staked out our street corners and playgrounds, ready to sell junk food to our babies.

Food Renegades are already on the front line of this war to preserve real food because we know it’s better for us, for our children, and for our planet. Now we have to recognize that we are also fighting against an enemy that shamelessly targets young minds, and we must be vigilant in preparing those young minds to defend themselves.

If you’re hunting for a way to help your kids understand Nutrition from a decidedly Real Food perspective, be sure to check out Real Food Nutrition & Health. Right now, everyone who buys a copy also receives the Recommended Book List For Further Reading. The elementary school aged version will be released later this month!

And thanks again, Deb! Deborah Adams writes on the topics of natural health, healthcare, online nursing, education, etc. Outside of writing, she enjoys gardening and playing with her chickens.

(photo by mait)


  1. says

    Great perspective and suggestions, Deb! I think the less we conform to the mainstream way of doing things, the easier it is to help our children learn to make the right choices. We homeschool (unschool, really) and don’t watch television with commercials (we stick to DVDs and stuff). And I definitely teach the kids about food when we’re cooking or grocery shopping. Just little hints and tidbits here and there really add up. And while candy and cookies and the like aren’t necessarily banned from my kids’ lives, they certainly understand the meaning of the word “treat.”
    .-= Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life´s last blog post …Meal Spacing and Intermittent Fasting Q and A With Matt Stone =-.

    • Cool Beans says

      That’s our approach too – homeschool, kids are involved in the shopping, cooking, and of course the eating. No live TV – everything is DVD, PBS, or prerecorded and commercials are cut out (that include any TV for Daddy and me). Rewards we’ve reaped from this:

      After I had purchased some veggies from a stand in our farmer’s market, my 4-yo son started filling a bad with green beans. He said “Mommy, we need to buy some and have some for dinner tonight, because they are good for me!” No argument here! My 4 year old wants green beans, he’ll get ’em!

      On a deeper level of understanding, my 10-year old recently had a medical prodecure done. She was knocked out for it, and when she was coming to, the nurse asked her if she wanted some juice or a popsicle (they wanted to get a little sugar in her). My daughter’s very first words upon waking and hearing this were “I’d have to see the ingredients of the popsicle first.”

      Elizabeth, I agree with you 100%, and I agree with Deb’s article 100%. We need to live out what we are telling our kids, and teach them right.

  2. says

    Elizabeth, Sounds like you could teach a course on this! It is certainly easier to teach them how to eat properly when you homeschool (not the easiest job in the world, but an admirable one). I think most parents don’t realize that the brainwashing is even there — it’s insidious! Good luck to you in keeping your young’uns on the healthy path!
    .-= Deb´s last blog post …What goes with cinnamon pickle =-.

  3. Heather says

    For me the question is “What to do when your husband is actively participating in the brainwashing?”. My husband grew up with McDonalds (his father worked for their coporate offices for 25 years). While he is willing to follow whatever food philosophy I put into practice at home, the workday and traveling are all about the drive-thru. His family also worships at the alter of the faux food. Despite being fat and ill they will not connect their food to their health because they don’t want to give up that garbage. Other than teaching my son about real food and real health at home how do I drive home the point that such substance is poison when they are all pushing it on him?

    • says

      Oh this is really tough. Then it’s like all things in life that you teach your kids. You simply do your best to be a good model, make sure they know why you’re making the choices you do, and leave the rest up to them! (And really, that’s all you can do anyway, even with a husband who was 100% on board with you food-wise.)

    • says

      I understand the problem, believe me! And I think Kristen has it — do your best and hope that some of the wise teaching will sink in. Most of the people your children encounter throughout their lives will be ignorant about the importance of nutrition. If you teach the children, give them the tools they need to make wise decisions about their health, there’s a good chance they will eventually do that. Eventually…
      .-= Deborah´s last blog post …What goes with cinnamon pickle =-.

  4. says

    Thank you so much for this post. I appreciate all that you wrote here. It is so difficult be swimming against the mainstream, especially now that our kids are getting older. Some of those kids eat packaged food, fast food, etc. We have to gently remind our kids that some things are okay for other families, but they aren’t the best choice for ours. When we get bombarded left and right by the people that surround us or the places we see while we are out and about, it makes me want to become hermits.

    But, that is where the choice lies, I suppose. Will I compromise my children’s health, just for the sake of making life easy and smooth?? Will I stand my ground and try my hardest to give my kids the best food that we can afford?

    I choose the latter. I have already been dubbed a “Food Nazi”. Maybe I’ll turn my kids into Little Food Comrades.

  5. says

    Thanks, Deb. Hmmm, a course on this might be an interesting idea. Yeah, school is a prime place for kids to learn about junk food. While the teachers are parroting the food pyramid, the other kids are snacking on HFCS-laden granola bars and eating white bread sandwiches with american cheese, and Little Debbies for dessert. Not a lot of good eating habits learned in school, that’s for sure.

    Heather, if it were me, I would just focus on what you can do at home. Of course, that really depends on how often the fast food thing is an issue. If it’s once or twice a week at most, I know that it’s not ideal in any sense but I think good food at home can really help make up for that. But if it’s coming at him several days a week I could see how that would be a major concern.
    .-= Elizabeth @ The Nourished Life´s last blog post …Meal Spacing and Intermittent Fasting Q and A With Matt Stone =-.

  6. says

    Awesome – I just wrote a post about this sort of thing for a carnival. It is so refreshing to know that I am not alone in my thinking. I have family members that think I am nuts when it comes to my families eating habits and then ask why my kids are so healthy all the time. *head to desk*
    .-= Megan ´s last blog post …Composting on the Cheap =-.

    • says

      Ditto, Megan. Most of the people I know are always sick or miserable or just plain whiny. When I suggest that a little yogurt or fresh food might be helpful, they laugh. And keep on complaining.

      Elizabeth, if you decide to teach the course, be sure to include the history of the food pyramid. Especially that part about the Dept of Ag working for the farmers (as in, beef cattle industry) and the part that meat producers played in creating it.
      .-= Deborah´s last blog post …What goes with cinnamon pickle =-.

  7. Katherine says

    Throw away your TV. You will close a huge open doorway through which marketers can enter your home when you do so. Or, at least do not allow your children to watch *commercial* television.

  8. suzanne says

    You use words like “war” and “battle” to describe parents’ efforts to protect their kids from fake food and that’s certainly one way of looking at it. The alternative is that this “is simply the way our family does things”. If we make it feel or sound or taste like an effort, it makes the alternatives much more interesting. Make the pursuit of healthy food a wonderful and appealing thing to your family and see how the attitudes change. Shopping for food should be a family affair, including reading of labels and planning meals. Tending the family garden, and especially harvesting tonight’s lettuce, can be performed by the three-year old. And of course elimination of the crap from your own refrigerator and pantry should be Mom’s priority. In my house we call junk food “sometimes food” – everything in moderation is certainly okay from time to time. So my kids eat a funnel cake at the county fair, and have McDonalds perhaps twice a year when we’re pinched for options, and they know when we visit grandma they can eat fruit loops (ugh). They all (including my husband) respect the rules if there’s reason and flxibility worked into the equation, and if we don’t call it a “battle” it won’t become one.

    • says

      Yes, you are absolutely right! I found early on that my kids would choose a salad over french fries in restaurants because the ‘grown-ups’ had that. When tending the garden, eating fresh food, or anything else is perceived as ‘grown-up’ or fun behavior, they’ll jump right on it.

      And yes, moderation in everything. Who was it who said ‘Eat 80% healthy, 80% of the time’?
      .-= Deborah´s last blog post …What goes with cinnamon pickle =-.

    • Mary says

      Suzanne, so well said. This is pretty much our family philosophy.
      When the kids were small we had nick names for the fast food places.
      Taco Belch

      We’d go grocery shopping together and start in the fruit section for some “healthy treats” and talk about food choices as we strolled down the isles.

      We all work together on an organic produce farm which has greatly improved our appreciation for whole, fresh, and local foods.

  9. says

    This makes me think of “Super Size Me” when Morgan Spurlock says he’s going to “slap his kid in the face every time we pass a McDonalds” to teach him to have an inherent fear and dislike.

    I love that our DVR allows us to avoid commercials. Fortunately, so far the only ‘fast food’ my DS2 knows is Chipotle. My goal is to keep it that way.

    • Cool Beans says

      My little guy loves Chipotle too, but can’t quite pronounce it right, so he calls it “Poach-Le.” Good luck with your goal, Hollie!

  10. says

    Very inspiring guest post. Anytime I see a little child with something I am 100% certain is not good for them a little sadness seeps through my body. I almost want to take it a way from the little girl or boy, but I obviously never do.

    When we see a young boy or girl downing something that you are 100% certain is detrimental to your health AND you notice they are overweight, should we say something? Should we maybe say hi, how are you and hope to start a conversation? If that person is alone I would be more willing to do so. If he or she is with a parent, then it would be harder to do.

    But, should we do this? I am really wondering. Our population grows everyday which means the population of children who eat pure junk food is growing everyday. There are a lot of people that are helping turning this around but we do need more help.

    I think speaking our minds at the children when the opportunity presents itself MIGHT be a good idea…

    Any thoughts?
    .-= Primal Toad´s last blog post …Primal-Paleo Recipes- Grass Fed Hot Dogs w- Veggies -amp Banana Avocado Green Smoothie =-.

    • Cool Beans says

      That one’s dicey, I think. You risk greatly offending the parents, if present…or perhaps if not present, once the child relates what was said to the parents. And if they’re offended, they aren’t likely to really listen to what you say. Plus, as a parent, I’d be alarmed at any adult walking up to my child and starting a conversation.

      While I understand the desire to practically shout out that what that child is doing is terrible for their health, I don’t think it should come from a stranger. I see bad food behavior all the time, but most of the time I think “it isn’t my place to tell that parent what to do.” From the few times I’ve tried, they won’t listen anyways.

    • says

      It’s a tough call, isn’t it? Generally I try to avoid that sort of thing with other people’s children, since it is almost never appreciated. And then I feel guilty when I don’t intercede. Is there anything creepier than watching a bottle-fed baby drinking cola from that bottle?

      In the end, this is something we all just have to decide on in the moment and with the particular situation. Please do let me know if you come up with a positive way to teach without drawing the wrath of the parent.
      .-= Deborah´s last blog post …What goes with cinnamon pickle =-.

  11. says

    A concerned friend and I were just talking about this the other day. Her 3 year-old daughter was in a dance class where the teacher used every imaginable type of junk food to help the students create movement. As a dancer myself, I was appalled. Not only does our society continually keep promoting the junk food = bliss mentality, but it goes one step further to maintain the veggies/health food = gross.
    .-= Robin´s last blog post …Core Support Series- Part I =-.

  12. Cool Beans says

    The Federal Trade Commission has a game for kids designed to help them think critically about advertisements:

    It’s not for the little kids, but I had my 10-yo play it. It taught her how to identify an advertisement (they are everywhere, not only tv commercials) and even supports some critical thinking – what is the ad trying to get you to do?

    I think it’s worth looking into. It’s a good start.

  13. says

    I’m not sure we can win this battle, but I think it has to start with truth.

    I’m not sure how you’d define winning. Does winning mean that your child never allows any fast food, junk food, or candy to pass their lips? Or does “winning” mean that such food takes it’s rightful place, as a very occasional treat

    We no longer have live TV but the kids see ads all the time, everywhere, anyway. But we talk about it. We talk about how the chips have MSG to fake out your tongue into thinking they taste good, and even though they do taste good the MSG isn’t healthy for you.

    I’m not saying that my kids are some kind of virtuous monks who live on raw peas and brown rice. But by constantly discussing food choices they are learning to make better choices. I think that’s the real failure – adults just say “no, that’s not good for you” but there are no quality or ongoing discussions. Learning to make good food choices is like learning a skill, like reading or multiplication or karate. It takes practice and you have put the time in – the time to teach kids how to make good food choices, and how to make good food.

    Truth does go a long way. I told the kids about the ammonia sprayed pink slime hamburgers, and showed them how hamburgers should be made. Now they tell their friends (and sometimes, yes, it’s embarrassing – when they yell “ew that kid is eating a pink slime burger! when seeing a kid eating a happy meal at the park)

    That said, ultimately parents do have a complete veto. If Mom doesn’t buy McDonald’s, then the kid – won’t eat McDonalds! Yesterday, on the way home from an errand the kids requested Little Caesar’s, Church’s Chicken, and a Whataburger. Guess what. I said no and kept driving. We came home at ate turkey hotdogs, green beans, and spinach. No big deal.

    We need to address our own weaknesses and lack of discipline instead of blaming the restaurants. They can’t force you to buy, if you truly don’t want to. But instead we DON’T tell ourselves the truth. We tell ourselves drive thru is faster (is it? 10 minutes to drive, 5-10 minutes in line, 10 minutes drive home… you could have spaghetti and salad or a veggie filled omelette faster, and not even have to put your shoes on!) We tell ourselves we deserve it (heaven help us if we deserve subprime beef and sodium slapped together by a plastic glove.)

    (I am completely guilty of this, much too often. But the first step is admitting the problem, then working to a solution!)
    .-= Milehimama´s last blog post …My Baby Sleeps =-.

  14. says

    We also unschool and have no commercial TV. My teenagers help cook and shop every day since they need to be able to do all this on their own soon. We are all allergic to corn and soy so it is very important to avoid all fast food, processed foods, even most veggies and meat from the grocery store. In fact, we can’t even eat a homecooked meal if we didn’t cook it because of all the hidden GMO corn (additives not listed on the label) in everyday staples. The main thing I have realized is that you not only have to teach your children to eat right, but also to withstand peer pressure. This becomes a lot easier when there is an allergy involved – I guess because it is more embarrassing to have an allergic reaction than it is to stand up to ridicule or pressure to conform. I have to say that the most common response from other children is curiosity and disbelief. They can’t believe that any teenagers go every day without soft drinks or chips or fast food and they also can’t believe all the things that contain corn. My kids definitely march to the beat of their own drummer now that they are 15 and 17, but I can’t imagine how hard it would have been at 6 and 8 years old.

    I do talk to adults in the grocery store all the time. Some don’t listen and probably go away thinking I am crazy, but occasionally I do have someone reconsider a purchase and ask questions seeking a safe option. I can’t help myself when it is a mother with small children in a hazardous area like the yogurt section. Most people still don’t understand how bad HFCS is for little ones and even the ones that do understand don’t realize how much is in yogurt. I usually just say something like, “I hate that this store doesn’t carry any children’s yogurts without high fructose corn syrup. They don’t even carry a single plain whole milk yogurt and children need full fat dairy.” It is always better received if stated as a criticism of the store rather than their food choices. I give them tips like the fact that we buy plain full fat yogurt and add fruit or honey to it at home.

    Sometimes there is just no tactful way to say it but it needs to be said nonetheless. I once stopped a lady that was allowing her 4 yo to drink a diet soft drink. I just told her that nutrasweet (aspartame) was a dangerous chemical that is harmful for everyone but especially devastating to young children’s brains. I urged her to do some research on aspartame before allowing her child to ingest anymore of it. I also told her it was in gum and toothpaste and jello and most things marked sugar-free. That lady may have hated me or been embarrassed but I bet she went home and looked it up. I can live with that.
    .-= kc´s last blog post …Blondies Homemade and Corn-free =-.

  15. says

    Kristen, great post!

    You are absolutely right. Fast food, factory food is a huge problem for all children. And the ads that market them are specifically designed to fascinate the child with the “food” being advertised. These ads, with their bright colors, cartoon character voices, songs, and other hypnotic effects, are designed to bypass the conscious mind of the child and implant the desire for the factory product in the mind of the child. It is difficult enough for reasoning adults to deal with hypnotic marketing, I t is almost impossible for a small child not to be influenced by it.

    As parents, we did everything we reasonably could to keep our child away from those ads. It worked, though not completely. At least our now teenage child has no desire for candy or sweets, or soft drinks.

  16. says

    I love the passion and engaged behavior I’m seeing here. All of you who are raising children right now and trying to steer them through the minefield of life — please keep posting about what you do and what works best. I think most parents would be happy to take steps to improve their own and their kids’ lives if only they
    1) knew how to do that, and
    2) had the concept
    .-= Deborah´s last blog post …Guerrilla laundry =-.

  17. says

    I love the passion and engaged behavior I’m seeing here. All of you who are raising children right now and trying to steer them through the minefield of life — please keep posting about what you do and what works best. I think most parents would be happy to take steps to improve their own and their kids’ lives if only they
    1) knew how to do that, and
    2) had the concept

    All of you here can do so much good simply by sharing your ideas with other parents.
    .-= Deborah´s last blog post …Guerrilla laundry =-.

  18. Kika says

    I feel so frustrated when I see things like shelves lined with huge boxes of chocolate bars directly facing the toy isle in the grocery store, churches and even soccer coaches giving out candy as a ‘reward’??? My youngest has food allergies which people respect a little better than when we simply tell them that we don’t want our kids eating refined sugar/junk food. Frustrating. We had to work to prevent our church from bringing in a vending machine of junk food. The idea was that all profits would go to missions but we didn’t feel that sacrificing the health of our own children was a good way to raise money for children in another country! We really are considered wierd by many, I guess, but the more we vote with our dollars and make healthy choices for our own bodies, I think people will notice and learn and possibly make better choices for their own lives. I think it is best, too, not to act with disgust toward other people even when we wish better for them. They may not understand how to do better.

  19. says

    A good friend who wants to raise her son on “real food” (she isn’t as strict about it as many whole foodists here, but she is pretty good) actually struggles the most with other moms. Playing at the park they repeatedly offer her son junk food, she always has alternate food, but her son is young and doesn’t always understand why he can’t have the other food, and our friends definitely don’t understand why she “deprives” him of Cheetohs. It is difficult on so many levels when the kids are so young and impressionable.

    The saddest thing I saw was a two-year old in a restaurant who drank four of those jumbo refill cups (I would say 32-ouncers) during dinner. I was shocked that anyone would serve a 2-year-old (still in high chair and as you say, speaking a language that only a mom could understand) coco cola, let alone in that quantity.
    .-= Alisa – Frugal Foodie´s last blog post …Summer Reading Series Giveaway- Two Dessert Cookbooks! =-.

  20. says

    That IS horrifying, Alisa! And I’d bet the parents dearly love that child, but just aren’t aware of nutrition. I know some highly intelligent people (one of them works in the dietary dept. of our local hospital) who haven’t a clue that spinach and green M&Ms are two different animals. It’s easier for us to passively accept the sort of ‘education’ that comes in television and magazine ads, i.e. the food industry propaganda.

    A lot of the comments here have suggested very gentle and friendly ways to make adults more aware of what’s going on. They’ll be harder to teach than children, of course.
    .-= Deb´s last blog post …Seeking the simple life – from guest blogger David Hunter =-.

  21. Heather says

    Funny, I posted on how to get my husband, and also my in-laws, to stop giving my son junk food. Then my son’s doctor said he should go on GAPS because at one year old he should be growing taller and heavier, and he hadn’t gained any weight in three months. Given his insatiable appetite it was quite obvious that he isn’t absorbing nutrients. Now both my husband and mother-in-law have become militant about his food, triple checking that everything I feed him is on the list of acceptable foods. Oh how the tides have turned!

    I do have to say, not only with this but also what I’ve seen from my mother’s dairy allergy that people are much more tolerant when a food allergy is the reason for avoiding certain foods than if you simply want to be healthy. It reminds me of all the times I tried to diet and people would shove cake and soda in my face saying “just this once won’t hurt you”. Sure once is fine (providing no allergies or intestinal issues) but all those onces add up to a lot. Since when did simply saying “No thank you” stop being good enough?

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